In the early years of the last century, Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset proposed a solution to society’s ills that still strikes me as ingenious, in a deranged way. He argued that all public sector workers from the top down (though, come to think of it, why not everyone else, too?) should be demoted to the level beneath their current job.
His reasoning foreshadowed the Peter Principle: in hierarchies, people “rise to their level of incompetence”. Do your job well, and you’re rewarded with promotion, until you reach a job you’re less good at, where you remain.
In a recent book, The Hard Thing About Hard Things, the tech investor Ben Horowitz adds a twist: “The Law of Crappy People”. As soon as someone on a given rung at a company gets as good as the worst person the next rung up, he or she may expect a promotion.
Yet, if it’s granted, the firm’s talent levels will gradually slide downhill. No one person need be peculiarly crappy for this to occur; bureaucracies just tend to be crappier than the sum of their parts.
Yet it’s wrong to think of these pitfalls as restricted to organizations. There’s a case to be made that the gravitational pull of the mediocre affects all life – as John Stuart Mill put it, that “the general tendency of things throughout the world is to render mediocrity the ascendant power among mankind”.
True, it’s most obvious in the workplace (hence the observation that “a meeting moves at the pace of the slowest mind in the room”), but the broader point is that in any domain – work, love, friendship, health – crappy solutions crowd out good ones time after time, so long as they’re not so bad as to destroy the system.
People and organizations hit plateau not because they couldn’t do better, but because a plateau is a tolerable, even comfortable place. Even evolution – life itself! – is all about mediocrity. “Survival of the fittest” isn’t a progression towards greatness; it just means the survival of the sufficiently non-terrible.
And mediocrity is cunning: it can disguise itself as achievement. The cliché of a “mediocre” worker is a Dilbert-esque manager with little to do. But as Greg McKeown notes, in his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit Of Less the busyness of the go-getter can lead to mediocrity, too.
Throw yourself at every opportunity and you’ll end up doing unimportant stuff – and badly. You can’t fight this with motivational tricks or cheesy mission statements: you need a discipline, a rule you apply daily, to counter the pull of the sub-par.
For a company, that might mean stricter, more objective promotion policies. For the over-busy person, there’s McKeown’s “90% Rule” – when considering an option, ask: does it score at least 9/10 on some relevant criterion? If not, say no. (Ideally, that criterion is: “Is this fulfilling?”, but the rule still works if it’s “Does this pay the bills?”)
Mediocrity is no mere character flaw, but a deep tendency of the universe, to be ceaselessly fought, with no hope of final victory. Sorry, I don’t make the rules.
Read entire article by: Oliver Burkeman | Beware the gravitational pull of mediocrity | The Guardian | Friday 27 February 2015